By Maia Jasper White
After the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, a Leonard Bernstein quotation began popping up in my Facebook feed and email inbox.
It felt true. It also felt hollow.
It encouraged and validated me. It also made me angry.
I was proud of my colleagues in the arts for floating this sentiment at that time. And yet, doing so seemed strangely distasteful and disingenuous. (The fact that this coincided with end-of-year fundraising appeals didn’t help matters.)
I went on to judge myself for being ungenerous towards said colleagues. And for not proclaiming the power of the arts at equal volume. Yet I also gave myself props for taking art for what it is, and not endowing it with over-reaching powers. For seeing that terror and ugliness in the world is a much bigger problem than art alone can ever hope to solve. In my mind, few things undermine the true power of art quite like overstating it. Suffice it to say that I found the quotation supremely unsatisfying.
A week or so later, I listened to a remarkable episode of Hidden Brain. (You can read a summary of Episode 13 here, although I recommend listening to the whole thing.) It helped me reconcile the contradictory feelings brought about by the Bernstein quotation.
The substance of the episode comes from anthropologist Scott Atran, who believes we err gravely in thinking that moderation is the salve to terror. Brainwashing and religious radicalization, he says, are not the driving forces behind this brutality. He believes that deeper psychological forces are at work. Ones that all human beings share. He quotes Terence, an ancient Roman playwright: “Nothing human is alien to me.”
His thinking behind this struck me as both sobering and provocative. At worst, this idea seems resigned and permissive. It allows for the worst from us. Yet it also seems sanguine and empowering. I had to concede that accepting what is allows for an informed response.
When I read about any act of violence, it is difficult not to feel ashamed to be part of the human race. The darker end of our bell curve confuses and distresses me. We all do what we can mentally, intellectually, and emotionally to preserve our own ideals when they’re challenged. To make sense of all this when the unthinkable happens, I reflexively, sometimes subconsciously, engage in thought experiments. What “should” humanity include? What “must” it exclude? There must, I’ve often thought, be some people who lag behind in the self-domestication process. There’s us, and there’s them. There’s civilized, and there’s barbaric. There’s humane, and there’s inhumane.
But whether I like it or not, human and humane have two very different meanings. If a human being does something, it is de facto human. “Nothing human is alien to me.” It’s annoyingly resonant, isn’t it?
A few weeks ago, Phil and I watched “Grizzly Man,” one of my favorite films. In one of the more heartbreaking moments, Werner Herzog makes an astonishing observation. Timothy Treadwell, the man who chooses to live among the bears for 13 consecutive summers, cannot square the reality of nature with his sentimental world view. The fact that bears can eat their own cubs out of desperation did not fit into his idealized image of them. Nor could his perceived “connection” to them allow for such a fact. This childish and grandiose naïveté led to his death, and that of his girlfriend at the time. (Which, by the way, totally pushes my justice button.)
I see a distinct parallel between Treadwell and the rest of us. In rejecting what doesn’t fit with our ideology, we fail to see reality for what it is. And we suffer the consequences.
As we all know, humanity has too often been compelled to take a long, hard look in the mirror. Atran sees clear parallels between ISIS and Nazi Germany. He believes that brainwashing and religion aren’t responsible for these profound strains on our understanding of humanity. He credits something much more fundamental: the universal human yearning for transcendence. (?!)
Hidden Brain quotes George Orwell on Hitler:
“There is something deeply appealing about him… [Hitler] knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene… they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades… Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them, ‘I offer you struggle, danger, and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.”
Since last summer, I’ve been sloooooowly plugging my way through Doctor Faustus, by Thomas Mann (who was once a resident of the Villa Aurora, one of our favorite performance spaces). It’s a fiction about “the life of the German composer Adrian Leverkuhn, as told by a friend.” Shortly after I listened to Hidden Brain, I read the following passage — which describes Germany at the beginning of World War I:
“War had broken out… it raced through our cities, raging in all the minds and hearts of men as terror, exaltation, and frenzied urgency, as the thrill of fate, the sense of power, the readiness to sacrifice… There is no denying that in our Germany its primary effect was elation and historical exuberance, the rapture of beginning anew and tossing the everyday aside, liberation from a global stagnation that could take us no farther, enthusiasm for the future, an appeal to duty and manliness — in short, a heroic festival.”
It occurred to me that Mann, Orwell, and Atran were all saying the same thing. No one thinks they or their group are evil. Rightly or wrongly, the Other earns that title. That fact has nothing to do with cultural relativism — or moral nihilism. It’s human nature. Transcendence, adhering to ideals, belonging to a group beyond the self — these are profoundly, universally seductive.
As a musician, I am no stranger to the pull of the transcendent. I chase it on a daily basis. I’ve made my career out of it. What professional success I enjoy owes everything to audiences chasing it for themselves. I promote it as vital to culture and to enrichment of spirit. Like many — no, like all — I’ve felt its gravitational pull since I was a child. But expanding our yearning for transcendence to include a road to darkness and brutality was new for me. I had associated it only with aesthetics, the ineffable, and the ennobling. I wondered anew if one of art’s vital functions could be to fulfill our human need for transcendence in ways I hadn’t considered before. Suddenly, the Bernstein quote seemed less far-reaching. Less grandiose, and more pragmatic.
Venezuela’s El Sistema, and the dramatic global impact it has had, came to mind. Any high school orchestra nerd can speak to transcendence, being part of a group, and pursuing ideals. “Our reply to violence” started to click for me. It was neither art nor its importance that was feeling different. It was the need for transcendence itself — and above all else, how art relates to it. (That said, I’m hardly advocating for an ISIS Orchestra as a critical instrument of world peace. Just look at the politics and interpersonal trickiness that inevitably arise within any orchestra.)
I started to see a natural connection between anthropology and philanthropy: the study of mankind on the one hand, and the love of mankind on the other. The sanest reply to violence emerged as understanding a human need and providing for it. Uncomfortably touchy-feely and simplistic as the Bernstein quotation seemed at first, I was now surprised by its rationality.
All this was on my mind when LACO performed a “Discover” concert focusing on Bach’s Cantatas. Our incredible conductor (and resident humanist) Jeffrey Kahane outdid himself in his lecture, which preceded a complete performance of “Wachet Auf.”
He began with the fundamental idea that, regardless of one’s own religious views, the music of Bach cannot be separated from his devout Christianity. He pointed out that it can still be spiritually meaningful to everyone, as it is to him — “a Jew who was born Jewish.”
Just prior to Jeff taking the stage, a man addressed the audience on behalf of the venue, which is owned and operated by the Worldwide Church of God, to invite them to worship. The juxtaposition was stark, and a touch uncomfortable. All the same, it was a necessary foundation for Jeff to lay. We then performed a few interesting musical examples to illustrate Jeff’s point. The last one was a musical depiction of Christ’s sacrifice. And that’s when things got interesting.
Jeff made a masterful and organic segue into three stories of real-life sacrifices — replies to violence, really — of the recent past. The first was about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor and anti-Nazi, who died in a concentration camp. The second was about Salah Farah, a Kenyan Muslim who died just a few days ago, having been shot by terrorists after refusing to be separated from Christians (with whom he was traveling by bus). To conclude, Jeff spoke of Zaevion Dobson, the boy who lost his life shielding three girls during a drive by shooting. Through the audience’s reverent silence, Jeff said that he can no longer hear the Bach aria in question without seeing the face of Zaevion Dobson. And that despite his great respect for psychology and neuroscience, neither will ever be able to explain what compels people to sacrifice themselves for others — just as science will never be able to explain the genius of Bach.
During intermission, it was hard to find the right words with which to thank Jeff. He was admirably bold in his commitment to a universal, humanistic, even musical spirituality. I was excited to play the Bach now that the audience had been primed so meaningfully. I congratulated Jeff, and said something to the effect of: “time for us to worship in our way.” He laughed, and said only: “or whatever.”
As an agnostic, that gets a big fat “amen” from me. But “whatever” the case may be: making music as a reply to violence was feeling more palpable, and making more sense, than ever.
by Maia Jasper White
I’m not much of a Star Wars fan. I’ve only recently — and partially — seen Episodes 4 and 5. (Partially, because I fell asleep during both viewings.) This has led people of all ages to inquire about my legitimacy as a citizen of Planet Earth.
For what it’s worth, I’m likewise ignorant of many other pop cultural tropes. Never ask me the lyrics to, well, any ubiquitous song. Somehow, I’m missing a chip necessary for the absorption of contemporary zeitgeist. While my high school peer group was committing the Top 40 to memory via osmosis, I was shedding tears over Debussy’s String Quartet. Many a friend’s head has shaken in dismay at my limited pop cultural knowledge. Feeling a bit out-of-the-loop is the price I’ve paid for a lifelong attraction to the (relatively) esoteric and arcane.
While this is not something I’m proud of, neither is it something I long to change. The case of cultural FOMO with which I am afflicted is mild. It has yet to inspire me to recalibrate my natural tastes.
Instead, I’d like to think my obliviousness endears me to others. When called for a Neil Young session a year or so ago, I asked my husband if the singer in question “was famous.” His response: “that would be the rock equivalent of asking if Jascha Heifetz is famous.” (Duly noted.)
Imagine, then, my strange good fortune in playing a tiny part in the latest installment of Star Wars.
Alex Ross wrote a thoughtful piece on John Williams and “The Force Awakens.” In this post, I’ll share some of my memories and experiences recording the score.
Prior to “The Force Awakens,” I’d played my fair share of Williams’ music in concert. The intricacy and integrity of his writing always demands a certain level of quality from your playing. This demand is a hallmark of, well… good music.
Alex Ross writes:
“After “Star Wars,” [Williams] became a sound, a brand. The diversity and occasional daring of the composer’s earlier work—I’m thinking not only of “Close Encounters” but also of Robert Altman’s “Images” and “The Long Goodbye” and of Brian De Palma’s “The Fury”—subsided over time. Williams invariably achieves a level of craftsmanship that no other living Hollywood composer can match; his fundamental skill is equally evident in his sizable catalogue of concert-hall scores. Yet he’s been boxed in by the billions that his music has helped to earn. He has become integral to a populist economy on which thousands of careers depend.”
Because everything about the movie was kept under lock and key, they put out a fake name (“AVCO”) for the call. But everyone knew what it was. And not just because the main title on the stand gave it away.
The LA studio musician scene was abuzz with excitement. Scoring the movie in LA, by union musicians, was a significant and timely coup. Significant, because every prior Star Wars films had been recorded in London. Timely, because the LA studio community has, for years now, been in a heated debate. The topic: how can we compete with outsourcing, and the threat to our livelihood it poses?
For many reasons, everyone brought their A Game for these sessions. People dressed sharply, arrived even earlier than usual, and came prepared. (Session music isn’t typically sent to the musicians ahead of time; this was.) Eating and drinking on the stand were prohibited. Suffice it to say that these were Sudoku-free sessions. Chit-chat, too, was at a minimum.
The quiet excitement in the room was palpable. So was deep respect for John Williams. Applause and smiles greeted him every day, and thanked him at the end. The room hung on his every word, whether he was telling a story or delivering musical notes. His comments revealed an understanding that few other living film composers match.
As proud last chair second violin, I sat in front of the french horn section. At one point during Kylo Ren’s theme, Williams asked them to tongue something differently. I can’t remember what, exactly, he wanted. His knowledge of the instruments of the orchestra is what came through — with a depth and class that is rare.
The players delivered accordingly. Everyone sounded fantastic. I was especially proud of two close friends, Jessica Pearlman Fields and Ben Smolen. (Ben will play the voice of Ferdinand the Bull in Salastina’s February concert.) Another good friend, Jenni Olson, wrote her own blog post about her experiences playing flute on the score. They killed everything they played, and left a strong impression on everyone in the room. Watching friends shine never grows stale.
Williams himself kept remarking on the caliber of the horn section. They sounded so fantastic, he said, that he was certain he’d be the envy of every film composer around. I loved sitting closest to the beast that is Andrew Bain. Hearing him steel himself before each entrance was inspiring, as was his consistent and impeccable delivery.
And I’m proud to share that some of the horn players got something out of sitting near me.
Let me explain.
Playing in the studios can be, oh, a bit nerve-wracking. Once the red light comes on, no audible flaws are permitted. Clearing your throat alone can ruin a take. To get out my juju in a silent, non-disruptive way, I like to play with tangle toys. During a break, one of the horn players approached me. He told me he drives his colleagues nuts by bouncing his knee up and down in rapid-fire succession. He wanted to know about my fidget toy. He and another horn player are now converts. (Yes, this is me taking partial credit for how good the horns sounded. Anytime, John… anytime.)
Kevin beamed — grimaced, more like it — while playing what I later learned was the Millenium Falcon theme. (“I’m geeking out so hard right now!” he squealed, through bugged eyes and clenched teeth.) Even I recognized a fair amount of themes from the original films. But the new ones worked so well in context that I had to consult with my husband to make sure they were, in fact, new.
Rey’s theme, beautifully played by Gloria Cheng, stuck in my head for days. And once I knew which themes were new and which were throwbacks, I better appreciated how they worked together. There was a lot of ingenious counterpoint happening between them. And the interplay of these themes allowed for a fun guessing game: based on the musical material, what might be happening in the plot?
Due to the top-secret nature of the film, the footage wasn’t shown on a large screen behind us, like it usually is. One of my friends, a harp player, was able to see Williams’ personal monitor from where she was sitting. She was also privy to a few hushed exchanges between JJ Abrams and Williams.
On one such occasion, she deduced the death of a major character. After the session, she confided: “I don’t know if I was supposed to see that. Seems like a big spoiler!” It’s a good thing she, like me, is not a die-hard fan. That’s why she told me. (And no — neither of us ruined it for anyone.)
JJ Abrams and Williams’ relationship was something to behold. JJ thanked Williams many times over in the most sincere, touching, and gracious ways. Although the recording studio was clearly Williams’ kingdom, he was nothing if not genteel and humble sovereign. He shushed applause each time he received it — which was often. Daily, in fact. Each day felt as though he were receiving both a lifetime achievement award and a grateful, reverent embrace from the room. I couldn’t help but wonder what it must be like for him to know his music has touched billions of people in profound ways; sustained an industry; and inspired countless artists, likely well beyond his own lifetime. To know — at 83 — that he was making film music history in the here-and-now. It was a privilege to observe.
He seemed truly humbled by the scope of his own life’s work. All this reminded me of one of my favorite quotations (from Nabokov’s autobiography, “Speak, Memory”):
“It is certainly not then—not in dreams—but when one is wide awake, in moments of robust joy and achievement, on the highest terrace of consciousness, that mortality has a chance to peer beyond its own limits, from the mast, from the past and its castle tower. And although nothing much can be seen through the mist, there is somehow the blissful feeling that one is looking in the right direction.”
Williams referred to every ten-minute break as “intermission,” and to his players as “people.” (“Alright people; we’ll take intermission now.”) And he thanked all of his people for the stellar jobs they did. This included Bill Ross for conducting when Williams couldn’t. It also included Mark Graham and his team for music prep. Our friend Paul, giddy in his own introverted way, was part of this orchestration team. He shared that orchestrating for Williams involved nothing but transcribing clear intentions. Williams was exacting in what he wanted from each specific player. There was no guesswork required; no lines to be colored in.
I myself summoned the courage to thank JJ Abrams for two things. One, for his advocacy for scoring in LA; and two, for inadvertently introducing me to my husband because of it. When I shared that Philip and I met while scoring his show “Revolution,” JJ said I’d “made his day.” That made me laugh, seeing as the day in question was the final day of scoring “The Force Awakens.” What a mensch.
I lacked the courage, though, to get my photo taken with John Williams. Kevin wasn’t so sheepish.
Kevin and I missed two sessions. Sadly, one of them was on October 12th — when they recorded the main title and end credits. With none other than Gustavo Dudamel as surprise conductor. Even I did a headdesk when I heard that news. Happily, the reason we weren’t there was because our Yosemite wedding was the day before. (Kevin was the officiant.) Luckily for us, we were there when they re-recorded the main title and end credits later on.
And we missed a session in June because it conflicted with a Salastina performance. That, too, fell under the category of “worth it.” Same went for the cast & crew screening, which conflicted with a rehearsal of our Chamber Messiah. Thankfully, my recent husband did not divorce me over this transgression.
We saw the movie in the theater shortly after it came out. I cannot tell you how tickled I was to be able to hum along to themes that were unknown to everyone else in the theater.
Just don’t ask me for a plot summary.
Here is how we’d like to respond when someone asks: “What is chamber music?”
“Imagine that you’re in a space designed to beautifully transmit vibrations. You’re sharing that space with a handful of people, musicians who have spent decades refining and mastering their instruments or voices. They’re bringing to life the creations of some of the greatest creative human spirits, using the most perfectly designed acoustic tools. They produce vibrations, use them to communicate what is most poignant in the human condition; they shake the air to communicate with each other in an incredibly intimate way, and share their collective vibrations with you. You’re in this space, where honesty, generosity of spirit, a surfeit of beauty, are resonating like crazy. And you begin resonating with it all. Existence is laid bare and its secrets are revealed. What are we all sharing? That life is beauty, pain and joy are beauty, that things are more glorious than they seem, that we can share this beauty with each other in this way and so are not as alone as we secretly fear…”
But that might be awkward.
Typically, being asked to perform on a concert series involves individual preparation and group rehearsal time before walking out on stage – and hopefully accomplishing what’s written above once there. But there are countless other details that go into creating a memorable concert experience: choosing that special space, conceiving a program that will keep the audience (and musicians) inspired, choosing players who will be sympathetic to each other’s musical impulses and personalities, leading rehearsals with an atmosphere of experimentation while still maintaining direction and focus, spreading the word about performances, building support within the community, and generally overseeing all aspects of concert production most likely to result in the kind of experience described above.
This is what you undertake when you create, direct, and perform in a chamber music series. We started the Salastina Music Society because of the joy we described in our hypothetical answer (and the fulfillment of making it happen from start to finish). We’ll be using this blog to share what happens behind the scenes. Check back often for guest artist interviews, special information about upcoming concerts, and other ramblings!